Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before
Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda
Were I to write a science fiction movie, it would be about a spaceship full of aliens who like to eat humans. As their intergalactic spaceship circles Earth, the aliens ponder how they might discreetly harvest humans for their cosmic smorgasbord. They’ve determined that humans don’t taste as good when they’re pasty and stringy and stressed-out, so they start researching ways to create a device that tricks people into becoming tanned, plump and docile. After several months of trial and error, the aliens unveil a foolproof trap—a giant, box-like contraption that separates Homo sapiens from their home-habitat and subjects them to an entire week of inactivity, constant eating and sun exposure. This ingenious device, the aliens announce triumphantly, is to be called the “cruise ship.”
As I enter my final day aboard the Norwegian Dawn, I can sense a change of mood among the rank-and-file passengers. Bloated and blissful after six days of cruising, everyone seems at a loss for what to do now that Bermuda has receded into the distance. The ship still provides a massive array of activities, but even amidst the shopping and the stage shows (“Flashback to the ‘60s with Jose and Patti!”) I detect an edge of anxiousness that can arise when leisure-overload bumps up against the creeping realization that workaday life is about to resume. A week of isolation from reliable Internet and cellphone services has left people with nothing new to talk about, so the default social activity among passengers seems to be a running commentary on everything that’s happening on board. Given the public-yet-enclosed nature of the ship, this has made for great eavesdropping.
Now that word has gotten out that there are Trekkies onboard, an increasingly popular conversation topic among non-Cruise Trek passengers is “Star Trek.” This at times proves confusing. While I’m eating my lunch by the swimming pool on Deck 12, for instance, I hear two men in the hot tub arguing about why Klingons in the original series look different from the Klingons in later incarnations of “Star Trek.” The guys look to be in their mid-40s, and they occasionally pause to yell over at their children, who are splashing around in the pool. I don’t recognize them, so I walk over, introduce myself, and ask them if they’re with the “Star Trek” contingent. The instant they realize I’ve taken them for Trekkies, their eyes go blank with a look of hard-wired adolescent terror. They eventually regain their composure and explain that they’re just taking a regular cruise-vacation with their families—but for a brief moment the awkwardness is palpable: I feel as if I’ve just walked into a junior high locker room and asked a couple of boys if they’d like to kiss each other.
Indeed, showcasing one’s “Star Trek” fandom can at times be a delicate endeavor. Despite the overwhelming sense of affection the show garners from most all corners of American society, nobody (not even the Cruise Trekkers I’ve met) wants their affection to be taken the wrong way. It’s as if there’s an archetypal über-fan out there—a snuffling, virginal 47-year-old who spends his waking moments building balsa-wood models of Starfleet battle-cruisers in his mother’s basement—and nobody wants to be mistaken for him.
If anything, however, my time on the Norwegian Dawn has confirmed that a visible “Trek”-fan archetype doesn’t really exist. Since my fellow Cruise Trekkers rarely wear their “Star Trek” costumes for general cruise events, they’ve managed to blend seamlessly with the other passengers. Last night I attended a karaoke contest at Dazzles Lounge, and a young couple sitting next to me spent the entire night singling out “Trekkies.” Apparently the wife’s criteria encompassed anyone who was overweight, poorly groomed or given to singing off-key (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that all the Cruise Trekkers were off attending a group dinner in the Venetian restaurant at the time). Moreover, some of the most spontaneous expressions of “Star Trek” fandom haven’t even come from the self-identified Trekkies. I spent my second day on Bermuda in the company of “Trek”-actor Vaughn Armstrong, and the only true moment of stalker-style hysteria came during a visit to the St. George wharf, when a random group of teenage Norwegian Dawn passengers shriekingly identified him as “Admiral Forrest from ‘Enterprise’” and demanded he pose for photographs.
On a few occasions, cruise passengers have noticed me taking notes at Cruise Trek events and asked me what it’s like to spend a week in the company of Trekkies. I tell them that Trekkies are pretty much like anyone else, they just happen to be fixated on a certain science-fiction show.
This seems a reasonable enough answer, but as the final day of the cruise progresses, I come to discover that it isn’t entirely accurate.
For travelers and journalists alike, a central strategy in encountering other cultures is to get out and meet people. The odd catch to this endeavor is that, as a traveler or a journalist, you tend to meet the same kind of people over and over again. In countries where you don’t speak the language, you invariably end up hanging out with local English speakers; in esoteric subcultures like Cruise Trek, it’s natural to gravitate toward the extroverts. And in doing so, it’s easy to miss out on the introverted perspective of people who don’t feel always comfortable in social situations.
I learn this quite tellingly after lunch, when I stand up at a Cruise Trek trivia event and announce that I’d love to interview anyone who feels they’d like to share something about how “Star Trek” has affected their lives. The response is unexpectedly overwhelming: I spend the rest of the afternoon meeting unfamiliar Cruise Trekkers—people I’ve seen here and there, but didn’t really notice. Most of them confess that they would have been too shy to approach me had I not offered the pretext of a formal interview (as well as a reassurance that I was not there to make fun of them).
In the process of speaking with this new group of Trekkies, I hear a common refrain: “If I seem normal to you, it’s because ‘Star Trek’ has helped me feel normal.” The sentiment comes in a number of variations:
“When I was a teenager I was a bit of a social outcast and I really identified with ‘Star Trek’ and its inclusion for others. I always liked Data from ‘The Next Generation’ because as an android he didn’t fully grasp the human condition. Since I’m autistic I don’t have as many social skills, and sometimes I struggle with the same issues as Data. It’s encouraging to know that such an intelligent and well-liked character also has problems understanding social situations.”
“Growing up black and female in the 1960s, it meant so much to turn on the TV and see a woman like Uhura portrayed with intelligence and strength, working as an equal alongside white men and an Asian and a man of mixed race. ‘Star Trek’ showed me that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like: You’re valuable just the way you are, and anything is possible if you find your talents and work hard.”
“You have two families in life, the one you’re born into and the one you choose. ‘Star Trek’ is the family I’ve chosen. It’s not just a show about gadgets and space battles; it’s about the camaraderie of the people on the spaceship. Coming from a dysfunctional background, it was important for me to see that kind of goodness and caring between people. At some point I just decided I wasn’t going to live like the people I grew up with; I was going to live my life like the people on the U.S.S. Enterprise.”
As I listen to one person after another talk about how “Star Trek” has helped them make sense of life, I recall a passage from “Understanding Other Cultures,” an old 1960s anthropology primer I discovered on my father’s bookshelf when I was a kid. “The most profitable way to look at a culture is to see it as an adaptive mechanism,” the introductory chapter read. “In this sense a culture is a body of ready-made solutions…a cushion between man and his environment. ...It is our culture that enables us to get through the day because both we and the other people we encounter attach somewhat the same meanings to the same things.”
I begin to see that, for all of my glib, quasi-ethnological pronouncements about experiencing Cruise Trek as an outsider, “Star Trek” fandom truly is a human culture in the purest sense of the word. I feel privileged to have experienced it for a few days.
The final event of Cruise Trek is a sci-fi themed pajama party, which takes place in the Deck 12 conference room. Everyone shows up dressed in nightgowns, Starfleet uniforms or some combination thereof. One married couple shows up in nightshirts, slippers and full Vulcan and Klingon makeup. After a few final trivia contests, everyone ends up huddled around folding tables, engrossed in a sprawling, collective game of Uno. Some people clutch teddy bears as they play their cards; others hold beers or cocktails. One couple cuddles in the back of the room, half-awake under a blanket patterned with Starfleet logos.
Scanning the tables, taking note of everyone who’s told me their story, I’m impressed by the diversity of the group that has assembled here: not just male and female, urban and rural, black and white, but conservative and liberal, gay and straight, introvert and extrovert, religious and atheist, healthy and handicapped. Office workers rub shoulders with retired soldiers, shoe salesmen with physicians, businessmen with the unemployed. The charm isn’t that these people share a love of “Star Trek,” but that—apart from “Trek”—they don’t necessarily have all that much in common. It’s a weird little travel moment; all of us playing cards in our pajamas and chatting informally with the same kind of people we might ignore back home.
We end up playing well after midnight. Nobody keeps score.